Broadband Infrastructure Falls Short of Demand in the US

Although the internet is playing a greater role in academics with each passing year, the country’s broadband infrastructure is not keeping up with the demand education has placed on it. Students use technology in myriad ways daily, from utilizing cloud computing to collaborate and interact with peers and teachers to using e-textbooks instead of the traditional paper texts — but that usage needs a system to support it.

According to a survey from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, more than 20% of all American households with school-aged children still don’t have broadband access in the house. The problem is even more acute in low-income households and in rural areas located far outside city centers. The result is that the country is being split by a digital divide.

Some end up huddling in McDonald’s and Starbucks just to complete homework assignments. In 2011, the public schools in Fairfax County, Va., an affluent district outside Washington, D.C., introduced an e-textbook program to replace printed textbooks. But the books worked only when students were online, and some features required high-speed Internet access. Ultimately, the district had to purchase an additional $2 million worth of textbooks to support students who did not have adequate access to use the electronic versions at home.

Another recent study, this one from Pew Internet and American Life Project, shows that schools are not pausing with technological adoptions in order to allow their disconnected students to catch up. Although many teachers expressed concerns about those in their classroom without a reliable internet connection at home, still a full two-thirds regularly assigned homework that required an internet connection to complete.

This was especially true in schools located in low-income neighborhoods. Teachers there believed that their students were “behind the curve” when it came to any digital education tools, including broadband internet. And more than 80% believed that this lack of connectivity was broadening the gap between the economic haves and have-nots.

Cities like Santa Monica, Calif., and Seattle have taken it upon themselves and invested in their own network fiber infrastructure capable of supporting gigabit connectivity, including connecting all of the schools in the area. Other communities are looking at public/private partnerships with new providers to bring next-generation networks to their communities. For example, connecting schools is a priority of Google Fiber project in Kansas City. Working with the local governments in both Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., Google identified community anchor institutions that would receive free fiber connections if enough residents in their neighborhoods signed up for the service in advance.

However, this type of strategy for determining what schools and neighborhoods get connected also raises concerns about disparities in access. Of the 202 “fiberhoods,” 180 qualified for the service, but many of the disadvantaged areas did not.